Chesterton essays — A Defense of Nonsense — Explanation

G.K. Chesterton, A Defence of Nonsense (1902)

There are two equal and eternal ways of looking at this twilight world of ours: we may see it as the twilight of evening or the twilight of morning; we may think of anything, down to a fallen acorn, as a descendant or as an ancestor. There are times when we are almost crushed, not so much with the load of the evil as with the load of the goodness of humanity, when we feel that we are nothing but the inheritors of a humiliating splendour. But there are other times when everything seems primitive, when the ancient stars are only sparks blown from a boy’s bonfire, when the whole earth seems so young and experimental that even the white hair of the aged, in the fine biblical phrase, is like almond-trees that blossom, like the white hawthorn grown in May. That it is good for a man to realize that he is ‘the heir of all the ages’ is pretty commonly admitted; it is a less popular but equally important point that it is good for him sometimes to realize that he is not only an ancestor, but an ancestor of primal antiquity; it is good for him to wonder whether he is not a hero, and to experience ennobling doubts as to whether he is not a solar myth.

Meaning … When you see a half-filled glass of water, you may either say, “The glass is half-filled.” or ‘The glass is half-empty.” It depends upon your mental make-up. In the same way, when the sky is filled with a light golden hue, you may say that it is the evening setting in, or the morning setting in. In case of evening, the Sun just buries itself under the horizon splashing an orange light all over the sky. In the same way, when the dawn arrives, the Sun just begins to emerge from the horizon, causing identical coloration of the sky. In different realms of human life on earth, similar ambiguities confront him all too often.
As we all know, human civilization is constantly evolving becoming more and more sophisticated as the years go by. Mankind has become incredibly enriched by knowledge, nobleness, creativity, and humane tendencies. Countless bright and benevolent minds have contributed to this evolution. When we look back, we feel humbled by the great gift of these great men and women in bringing us to this stage of enlightenment.
In the next breath, we feel somewhat uncomfortable thinking how our descendants living on this earth a thousand years from now will feel about our primitive state of science, arts, culture, religion etc. Just as the way, we fail to comprehend how humans lived and thrived in the Stone Age, and the Copper Age, and the Bronze Age, with no smart phones, no cars, no hospitals, no jet flights etc., our descendants will have a hearty laugh thinking that we didn’t know the cure for cancer, and how we struggled to set foot on moon. Standing on a certain point of time, and looking back is as disconcerting as looking to posterity. The travel of time brings us all such confusion.
Therefore, it will be wise not to think of ourselves as heroes who have made great strides. Similarly, humans will do well not to assume themselves to some sort f solar myth.

The matters which most thoroughly evoke this sense of the abiding childhood of the world are those which are really fresh, abrupt and inventive in any age; and if we were asked what was the best proof of this adventurous youth in the nineteenth century we should say, with all respect to its portentous sciences and philosophies, that it was to be found in the rhymes of Mr. Edward Lear and in the literature of nonsense. ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose,’ at least, is original, as the first ship and the first plough were original.

Meaning .. Inventors have a propensity to think about their own invention as the first milestone of a long road of astounding inventions to come in future. They think so, because they get thrilled by the new vistas their own work opens up paving the way for far more thrilling inventions to come in the times ahead. Thus, a sense of ‘permanent childhood’ remains in the minds of great scientists and philosophers. They think they are just children, beginning their path of knowing the unknown. So, if someone asks the author what was the most exciting new knowledge added in the nineteenth century, he would say that it was the poem of nonsense written by Mr. Edward Spear titled ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’. The author dares to say so, because the style, content, and the thought behind the poem, although pure vulgar, was original, at least. On the contrary, the inventions we see are just improvements or additions to whatever knowledge that already existed. It is to be noted here that Mr. Spear wrote many such short poems that were pure nonsense, but greatly hilarious.

It is true in a certain sense that some of the greatest writers the world has seen—Aristophanes, Rabelais and Sterne—have written nonsense; but unless we are mistaken, it is in a widely different sense. The nonsense of these men was satiric—that is to say, symbolic; it was a kind of exuberant capering round a discovered truth. There is all the difference in the world between the instinct of satire, which, seeing in the Kaiser’s moustaches something typical of him, draws them continually larger and larger; and the instinct of nonsense which, for no reason whatever, imagines what those moustaches would look like on the present Archbishop of Canterbury if he grew them in a fit of absence of mind. We incline to think that no age except our own could have understood that the Quangle-Wangle meant absolutely nothing, and the Lands of the Jumblies were absolutely nowhere. We fancy that if the account of the knave’s trial in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ had been published in the seventeenth century it would have been bracketed with Bunyan’s ‘Trial of Faithful’ as a parody on the State prosecutions of the time. We fancy that if ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’ had appeared in the same period everyone would have called it a dull satire on Oliver Cromwell.

Meeting … The author concedes that there were great writers like Aristophanes, Rabelais and Sterne who really wrote some very absorbing essays, but these were also nonsense, though in a different way. These eminent writers resorted to satire while des cribbing the work of eminent scientists and philosophers of their times. Such satire was both intelligent and creative. For example, a creative nonsense artist could draw the moustache of Kaiser, which, as it is, were quite conspicuous and impressive. The artist could make the moustache longer and longer and make his viewers derive great fun out of such nonsense. The artist could even think of the venerable Archbishop of Canterbury having such an over-sized moustache. Such a thought is absurd, but genuinely hilarious.

The author feels that only in his times, people could quickly discern that such imaginative art meant nothing at all. They were just some harmless nonsense. Mr. Lear wrote about the Jumblies who had blue hands and green heads. Such creatures never existed, nor would they exist in future. Yet, Lear created them and wrote about the lands in which they lived.

The author cites the book of John Bunyan titled ‘The Trial of the Christian and Faithful’. It was published in the seventeenth century. If the story of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, where a knave has been tried for his misdeeds, would have been published around the same time, it could have created very unpalatable consequences. Readers would have seen a parallel between the knave’s trial with the more serious trial mentioned in Bunyan’s book, and concluded that the State Prosecutor had been mocked by the Knave’s trial story. All these point to the inability of the reading public to appreciate genuine and harmless humour. If the nonsensical poem The ‘Dong with the Luminous Nose’ would have been written around this time, the readers would have mistakenly ascribed it to the honourable Oliver Cornwell.

It is altogether advisedly that we quote chiefly from Mr. Lear’s ‘Nonsense Rhymes.’ To our mind he is both chronologically and essentially the father of nonsense; we think him superior to Lewis Carroll. In one sense, indeed, Lewis Carroll has a great advantage. We know what Lewis Carroll was in daily life: he was a singularly serious and conventional don, universally respected, but very much of a pedant and something of a Philistine. Thus his strange double life in earth and in dreamland emphasizes the idea that lies at the back of nonsense—the idea of escape, of escape into a world where things are not fixed horribly in an eternal appropriateness, where apples grow on pear-trees, and any odd man you meet may have three legs. Lewis Carroll, living one life in which he would have thundered morally against any one who walked on the wrong plot of grass, and another life in which he would cheerfully call the sun green and the moon blue, was, by his very divided nature, his one foot on both worlds, a perfect type of the position of modern nonsense. His Wonderland is a country populated by insane mathematicians. We feel the whole is an escape into a world of masquerade; we feel that if we could pierce their disguises, we might discover that Humpty Dumpty and the March Hare were Professors and Doctors of Divinity enjoying a mental holiday. This sense of escape is certainly less emphatic in Edward Lear, because of the completeness of his citizenship in the world of unreason. We do not know his prosaic biography as we know Lewis Carroll’s. We accept him as a purely fabulous figure, on his own description of himself:

‘His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.’

Meaning .. Mr. Lear is credited to be the foremost proponent of the role of nonsense in human life. This is because he was born before and had earned a lot of praise for his promotion of nonsense in his writings. Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was also famous for her nonsense poems. In real life, he was a serious, academic person who commanded a lot of respect. He was particular about minor details, and was known to be hostile to art and culture. Lewis Carroll had two facets of personality, one serious, and the other dealing with fantasy and nonsense. People ascribe such divergence to his hidden desire for an escape. Perhaps, he wanted to escape into an world that was odd, chaotic, and had no set rules. He loved to think of a place where some humans had three legs, and apples grew  in orange trees.

In one avtar, Lewis Carroll would have revolted on seeing disorderly people doing odd things. In his second avtar, he would roam around in a fantasy world that had no rules, no norms, and no place for practicality. With such duality, he epitomized modern day nonsense. Alice lived in a wonderland that was so odd to conceive. It had a disproportionate number of crazy mathematicians. It is natural to conclude that the wonderland of Alice had people in disguise. A sane person like Professor or a Doctor would never have tolerated such nonsense and gone forward aggressively to unravel their true self.

Mr. Lear surely does not have such bizarre urge to escape, because he is full-fledged citizen of a world where the sense of reason is conspicuously absent. Mr. Lear’s biography is not very well-known. This apart, Mr. Lear describes himself as a very normal person with normal ways.

While Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is purely intellectual, Lear introduces quite another element—the element of the poetical and even emotional. Carroll works by the pure reason, but this is not so strong a contrast; for, after all, mankind in the main has always regarded reason as a bit of a joke. Lear introduces his unmeaning words and his amorphous creatures not with the pomp of reason, but with the romantic prelude of rich hues and haunting rhythms.

‘Far and few, far and few, Are the lands where the Jumblies live,’ is an entirely different type of poetry to that exhibited in ‘Jabberwocky.’ Carroll, with a sense of mathematical neatness, makes his whole poem a mosaic of new and mysterious words.

Meaning .. Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland has strong intellectual undertones. On the contrary, Lear’s treatment of nonsense has poetical and emotional moorings. Lewis Carroll relies on reason, but this can’t be regarded as a strong element of contrast, because humans have treated reason more as a joke than as wisdom. The words Lear uses appear nonsensical, and the imagery of grotesque creatures he describes have remote connection to reason. Instead, they are meant to entertain, and amuse his readers. The jumblies he conceives live in far-off lands, and are really very funny creatures whose shapes can’t be reasoned in any way. His poem, ‘Far and few, far and few, Are the lands where the Jumblies live,’ is in sharp contrast with Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.’’ Lewis Carroll does not take much liberty with her selection of words. She uses new and mysterious words in her creations.

But Edward Lear, with more subtle and placid effrontery, is always introducing scraps of his own elvish dialect into the middle of simple and rational statements, until we are almost stunned into admitting that we know what they mean. There is a genial ring of commonsense about such lines as,

‘For his aunt Jobiska said “Every one knows That a Pobble is better without his toes,” ‘

which is beyond the reach of Carroll. The poet seems so easy on the matter that we are almost driven to pretend that we see his meaning, that we know the peculiar difficulties of a Pobble, that we are as old travellers in the ‘Gromboolian Plain’ as he is.

Meaning .. Lear is quite daring in his ways to twist words and introduce them at the middle of his sentences. This catches the readers off-guard. His lines, “For his aunt Jobiska said “Every one knows That a Pobble is better without his toes,” are really unique in their construction. Lewis Carroll comes no where such creativity using nonsense as its bedrock.

Our claim that nonsense is a new literature (we might almost say a new sense) would be quite indefensible if nonsense were nothing more than a mere aesthetic fancy. Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art, any more than anything essentially reasonable has ever arisen out of the pure reason. There must always be a rich moral soil for any great aesthetic growth. The principle of art for art’s sake is a very good principle if it means that there is a vital distinction between the earth and the tree that has its roots in the earth; but it is a very bad principle if it means that the tree could grow just as well with its roots in the air.

Meaning …. The argument that nonsense writing is a new form of literature will not stand if it is shown that nonsense is nothing more than aesthetic fancy. No great literature has ever emerged out of pure art, just as no reasonable idea has been born out of pure reason. Aesthetic creativity proliferates only when it gets a morally fertile soil. The saying ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ is valid only when we concede the difference between the earth and the tree that grows on it. Tree grows from the soil, but is very much different from it. Soil and tree are inseparable, but are quite distinct from one another.

Every great literature has always been allegorical–allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The ‘Iliad’ is only great because all life is a battle, the ‘Odyssey’ because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle. There is one attitude in which we think that all existence is summed up in the word ‘ghosts’; another, and somewhat better one, in which we think it is summed up in the words ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Even the vulgarest melodrama or detective story can be good if it expresses something of the delight in sinister possibilities–the healthy lust for darkness and terror which may come on us any night in walking down a dark lane. If, therefore, nonsense is really to be the literature of the future, it must have its own version of the Cosmos to offer; the world must not only be the tragic, romantic, and religious, it must be nonsensical also. And here we fancy that nonsense will, in a very unexpected way, come to the aid of the spiritual view of things. Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular that we take off our hats, to the astonishment of the park-keeper. Everything has in fact another side to it, like the moon, the patroness of nonsense. Viewed from that other side, a bird is a blossom broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a quadruped begging on its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a man from the sun, a chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two.

This is the side of things which tends most truly to spiritual wonder. It is significant that in the greatest religious poem existent, the Book of Job, the argument which convinces the infidel is not (as has been represented by the merely rational religionism of the eighteenth century) a picture of the ordered beneficence of the Creation; but, on the contrary, a picture of the huge and undecipherable unreason of it. ‘Hast Thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is?’ This simple sense of wonder at the shapes of things, and at their exuberant independence of our intellectual standards and our trivial definitions, is the basis of spirituality as it is the basis of nonsense. Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook. The well-meaning person who, by merely studying the logical side of things, has decided that ‘faith is nonsense,’ does not know how truly he speaks; later it may come back to him in the form that nonsense is faith.

Meaning … All great works of literature have been based on experiences that can be directly or indirectly related to real life experience. The ‘Iliad’ is straight from the battle field, and the Odyssey is on a homeward sea voyage. The Book of Job relates to life’s riddles. When people sit down to imagine something out of this world, they conjure up Ghosts. Others think of plots such as ‘A Mid-summer Night’s Dream’. Detective stories and melodramas also can be entertaining too, because we rarely do come across devilish characters on the streets in dark nights.

Therefore, it can be argued that nonsense can be the backbone of future day literature if it can present the world in its form. There is always the place for nonsense-themed literature as an alternative to religious, romantic or tragic styles of literature. Time might come when nonsense can form an element of spiritual literature. After all, for propounding religious notions or stories, humans have mixed some doses of nonsense in to them. A perfectly sensible story can not grip the way religious stories do, because the latter are always mixed with certain elements of nonsense.

If we see the reason behind the trees is to provide fodder for the giraffes, we will stop wondering at the trees. Only when we learn to wonder at its vertical leap to the skies for no rational reason, do we realize how beautiful it is.

The moon, similarly might be a celestial body of dry barren rock, but it inspires so much nonsense in us.

Viewed from that other side, a bird is a blossom broken loose from its chain of stalk, a man a quadruped begging on its hind legs, a house a gigantesque hat to cover a man from the sun, a chair an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two.

ADDITIONAL EXPLANATORY NOTES ………

The use of the word ‘nonsense’ .. We in India seem to treat this word ‘nonsense’ as rude and derogatory. We use this word while angrily criticizing anybody. However, the native English speakers use it for describing something that does not or lacks sense. An argument, or a theory, or a story can be described as nonsense, if it too removed from fact or reason to be plausible.

In a similar manner, we treat the word ‘stupid’ as a coarse rebuke. The meaning is not this. ‘Stupid’ means something that utterly lacks brain or intelligence.

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In this essay, Chesterton sings the praise of nonsense in literature. He says, nonsense adds beauty, imagination, and enjoyment to a literary piece. Without a dose of nonsense, literature will lose its charm, and wilL become dull.

Our Puranas, Mahabharat and Ramayana have a heavy mix of nonsense that makes them so very fascinating. Lord KrisHna lifts a whole mountain with his little finger, and Hanuman sets the whole Lanka ablaze with his burning tail are irrational, and impractical, but they make the text so very enjoyable. In the same way, James Bond films are replete with scenes that, in real life, can never happen. They don’t rely on extraordinary fantasies like the Greek or Hindu mythological stories, but are contrived to appear gripping despite the rationality that underlines the plots.

So, the author argues, nonsense is essential and desirable for Art.

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Sense behind the first paragraph … The human race is constantly evolving. Anthropological changes are happening slowly, but steadily. Similarly, arts, science and technology are also evolving continuously. When compared to our Stone Age ancestors, we might appear very advanced, but 1000 from now, our descendants might judge us to be very primitive and backward. Therefore, logically, we can be described both as advanced, when compared to Stone Age, and primitive in the eyes of our far-off descendants.

Another example .. A man in deep sleep gets up suddenly and finds that the outside light is faint, and the horizon is golden. He might get confused to determine if it is dawn, or dusk—whether Sun is rising or is setting.

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